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Bats facing killoffs from wind turbines, disease

Wind turbines are thought of as environment-friendly sources of energy, but for bats, they are a death trap.

Amanda Adams, instructor of biology at Fort Hays State University, talked to a capacity crowd Monday night about the plight of the bats during a FHSU Science Cafe presentation titled “Bats: The Rock Stars of the Night.”

Adams said bats are being killed by the millions by wind turbines.

Curious creatures, the bats are drawn to the turbines, where they are either struck or killed by a low pressure field that surrounds the turbines.

“When you go out and you are driving and you think ‘How majestic,’ in my head I think ‘It is a death count,’ ” Adams said. “It’s really awful.”

Researchers are trying to develop deterrents that will keep bats away from the turbines. They have investigated using sound to dissuade the creatures from approaching the turbines, but that has not been effective.

A type of fungus found in caves is also killing some species of bats by the millions. White-nose syndrome first appeared in U.S. caves in 2006. It has proven to be 99 percent fatal to bats in the caves were the fungus has been found.

Although researchers have found chemicals that could kill the fungus, conservationists are concerned about the effect spraying would have on soil quality, Adams said.

Although bats are often confused with rodents, they are in a completely different mammalian group. They also live very different lives. Rodents have short lives and reproduce quickly. However, bats may only have one young per year, and can live anywhere from 6 to 20 years. The oldest bat on record lived to be 45.

Because bats’ reproduction is slower than rodents, killing a bat has a much greater impact on the bat population. They are also slower to rebound from environmental disasters, such as the white-nose disease.

A quarter of all mammal species are bats with 1,300 species. They live on all continents except Antartica. Sixteen species of bats are found in Kansas – eight in Ellis County.

“That is the reason why I am in love with them. The incredible diversity of bats that are out there makes it really fun to study them and learn about them, because they are always doing something weird and breaking rules and you can never make a generalization about bats,” Adams said.

Bats in that diversity have some incredible adaptations. California’s spotted bats can hear the footsteps of a cricket on the ground. Common vampire bats have specialized heat sensors in their nose that allow them to locate blood-rich areas in the skin of their prey.

A species of bats that lives in the tropics make their own tents out of banana leaves and then they “cuddle” together like a hand full of cotton balls.

A Central American species has suction cups on its wrists. This helps the bats stick inside leaves at night when they rest.

The largest bat in the world is the flying fox and has a wing span of 6 feet. The smallest bat is called the bumblebee bat, which weighs less than a penny and could fit on the tip of your thumb. Both of these bats overlap range in the Philippines.

All the bats that live in North America are insect eaters. Depending on species, bats prey on insects both from the ground and catch flying insects, such as moths, in mid-air.

Some bats are carnivores. They eat frogs, fish, birds, reptiles and rodents. Some species that eat frogs have an special adaptation to let them know they have preyed upon a poisonous frog before they eat it.

Sanguivores or vampire bats have all kinds of incredible adaptations to consume blood, Adams said.

Common vampire bats can run along the ground. They land on the ground and climb up their prey, such as a cow or goat. They make a very small incision in the animal’s skin. An anti-coagulant in their saliva helps keep the animal’s blood flowing while they “daintly and gently” lap up about a tablespoon of blood with a curled tongue, Adams explained.

The bat’s metabolism is so specialized they can’t skip a single night of feeding or they will die.

Bats are essential to the environments in which they live. Bats save U.S. farmers $23 billion annually in pesticide costs and reduce crop damage. Many bats eat their weight in insects each night.

They are helping regrow the Latin American rainforests. Up to 95 percent of “pioneer plants” in cleared land come from seeds dispersed by bats.

If you like tequila, you can thank bats for that too. Bats pollinate more than 500 species of plants, including the agave plant from which tequila is made.

Conservationists are urging agave growers to become more bat friendly. Typically, agave is harvested for tequila before it blooms. This cuts off a food source for the bats and results in inbreeding of the agave plants.

Some growers are allowing at least some of their agave plants to flower to help the bats and promote biodiversity in their crops. When you are at the liquor store, look for bat-friendly stickers on tequila bottles.

Adams’ recent research has centered around echolocation. She has conducted research in which she has tried to determine how bats echolocate in groups. This line of research has indicated that bats use jamming avoidance. When they are in groups, they mutually suppress their signals in essence making fewer sounds to avoid conflict with other bats.

Bats will also shift their call on the sound spectrum to differentiate their signals from the bats around them.

The sounds bats use for echolocation is at a much higher frequency than can be heard by humans. However, in addition, to using sound to find objects and prey in low light, bats also use lower frequency sound, some of which humans may be able to hear, as social calls.

If you find a bat, don’t touch it. If you must move it, use gloves or a towel. Adams said she will not rescue you from the bats, but she will come rescue a bat from you. Call 979-393-2062.

The next Science Cafe will be at 7 p.m. March 18 at The Venue at Thirsty’s, 2704 Vine St., Hays. Cat Sartin, FHSU instructor of biological sciences, will present “The Bare Bones About Dinosaur Growth.” The lecture is free and open to the public.